The GRIP Files: Jeannette Lichner

In a new series of personal profiles, GRIP gets to know leading players in the financial services industry.

Today we speak with Jeannette Lichner, a non-executive director, senior adviser and executive coach. Jeannette’s most recent non-executive board posts include a three-year appointment with the UK Financial Conduct Authority, and she is currently appointed as a non-executive to the UK Information Commissioner’s Office.

Tell us about yourself

As I tell my coaching clients, careers frequently only make sense when you look back on them.  Having been educated in the United States, earning my university degrees from the University of Virginia, I moved to New York City to work for Price Waterhouse. After a few years I moved to Morgan Stanley. I was in New York for one year and volunteered to come to London which I did in 1984.

Photo: Private

I spent about 25 years in executive roles in the industry – an unusually wide variety of roles including finance, operations, corporate finance, human resources and various Chief Operating Officer roles, and finally Compliance, which was my last executive role. I then worked in consulting for 10 years.

I moved into a portfolio career including non-executive roles, teaching leadership at the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership and working with clients as an executive coach/mentor. The continuous themes in my career have been my interests in people and business, of any type. My curiosity often gets the best of me and everything is interesting.

That is what has drawn me to be involved in start-ups throughout my career, leading to my chairing a few firms now. Whilst it was not a well planned career it has been great fun and I feel I have made an impact.

What shaped your approach to your career?

As for many people, my parents were a big influence in my career and life. They emigrated to the United States with nothing in 1955, from Munich, Germany where my dad worked for Radio Free Europe. They met in Argentina where my mother was born and where my dad emigrated from Czechoslovakia.

We moved a lot in my early years – 12 different homes by the time I was nine, and we settled in Virginia. I remember what it was like to have little money, the toughness and resilience they showed to raise four girls with no support, and the values they demonstrated around hard work and financial independence.

“The continuous themes in my career have been my interests in people and business.”

They stressed the importance of education (both were very well educated – my mom had a degree in journalism and my dad had a PhD in business) and of always being able to earn money. Hence, I learned to type and take shorthand, and became an accountant. It also shaped my commitment to socio-economic diversity and creating life opportunities for everyone. I want other people to have the same chance I did to have a life full of opportunities that pay off with hard work.

What are your areas of expertise?

The two things I know a lot about are people and business, which together makes sense and enables me to work across many industries. However, I also consider myself a financial services industry expert.

My early career years where I did many different jobs gave me a very good grounding around how to run a well controlled business, which gives me a mindset where I look for risks and opportunities. In addition to leadership knowledge, I am recognised for my corporate governance expertise.

That knowledge developed during my consulting career where I advised clients on these matters including conducting board effectiveness reviews. Whilst not a technology expert (not sure who can claim that these days), I have always kept close to technology developments and invest time keeping up to date. I guess I know enough to be dangerous!

What do you most like about your work?

What I value in my work remains the diversity of the things I do. No two days are the same for me. What I seek out are opportunities to learn, to meet new people of all types and backgrounds, and helping them develop. 

“I enjoy my board roles which provide the intellectual stimulation of getting to grips with a business.”

Anyone who follows me on LinkedIn knows I love to share – I am very active on that media, sharing articles across a wide range of topics. I enjoy my board roles which provide the intellectual stimulation of getting to grips with a business, which does involve working through lengthy board packs, which can be a pain at times, and looking at issues from an objective, strategic perspective.

What are the main challenges for regulators in 2023?

I think an ongoing challenge for regulators is getting the public and firms under their remit to understand what the role of the regulator is. All too often I hear firms say ‘we need to do this because of the regulator’ or ‘we will do this when the regulator makes us’. I would like firms to do what is right for their customers and rely less on the potential enforcement stick to drive what they do. 

The biggest challenge for regulators is choosing what to prioritise, where to focus their limited resources. That is just the same as for the industries they regulate! No one ever has enough resources to do everything, so you have to pick, and that means recognising that some people will face harms that don’t feel right.

This is where regulators’ boards can be perhaps of most support to the executive teams – challenging that prioritisation and providing protection for the executives around those decisions.

How do you see the future of financial services?

Financial services remains an incredibly interesting industry, where things keep changing. Top of mind for the UK industry is the new Consumer Duty, which I hope will dramatically change how firms and their customers interact. It puts more responsibility on firms to put their customers needs first and, whilst not often mentioned, it also puts more responsibility on consumers to make sure they know what they are buying.

The tension between consumer responsibility and consumer protection remains a challenge in the UK, and is quite different than say the US where ‘let the buyer beware’ is the approach, so people do not seek compensation for losses.

“I would like firms to do what is right for their customers and rely less on the potential enforcement stick to drive what they do.”

ESG is going to remain a priority for firms, consumers and regulators for the foreseeable future. And technology is the great opportunity and worry – AI is something we need to each get comfortable with. If you have not tried ChatGPT I encourage you to do so, even if just to write a poem!

At the Information Commissioner’s Office, we are at the forefront of the exploration of this challenge. Financial crime remains a concern of mine – our approach to date, despite the vast amount of resources we throw at it, is not having the impact we would like.

What has been the proudest moment of your career?

I struggled to think of a particular moment probably as when I reflect on my career there have been many great moments (and some crummy ones as well). What I am most proud of is the positive impact I have had on people, encouraging them to take risks, learn, seek opportunities, and at times help them decide to move on from where they were working or what they were doing.

I am also very proud of the contributions I am making to society through my non-executive board roles at regulators, having recently completed a three-year appointment with the UK Financial Conduct Authority and appointed in Autumn 2022 to the UK Information Commissioner’s Office.

What advice would you give to your younger self?

This is a tough question. My immediate thought was that I would encourage myself to be more patient. That is something I encourage the people I coach to do – make decisions when you are in a calm state of mind rather than when emotions are at play. Whilst I don’t have regrets about my personal and career choices, I do think there were  few times where I would have made different decisions or managed the outcomes of those decisions better.

“Make decisions when you are in a calm state of mind rather than when emotions are at play.”

As I thought more about this, I think I would also encourage myself to set better work boundaries, learn to say ‘no’ or ‘later’, and enjoy moments of pleasure

Tell us an amusing anecdote about your work.

 I think the funniest thing about my work life is the fact that I came to the UK in 1984 with Morgan Stanley ‘for a year or two’ and 39 years later I am still here. So much for career planning! In general, whilst I do take work seriously I find it very easy to laugh at work and make others laugh.

I was delighted when one of the boards I stood down from recently told me they would miss my humour and positive outlook. I feel that is a great legacy.

What are your hobbies and interests?

We have recently moved to central London from West Sussex, where we raised our children. This is giving us a great opportunity to re-engage with theatre, which is better in London than anywhere in the world. We also enjoy art galleries, and walking around town seeing so many people of varied nationalities.

Keeping fit and healthy is a priority so I continue with running along the river to Tower Bridge, past the Houses of Parliament and into St James Park, or just along the river are favourite runs. We also do a lot of casual entertaining and being in London means we do that for friends passing through London on holiday and local friends.

We are also travelling more, particularly to the United States as our daughter and son live in New York City and Los Angeles, respectively. We are investigating camper van travel while there!

Can you recommend a good book?

A have enjoyed reading from a young age – my parents were both avid readers so maybe it rubbed off on me. I tend to mix fiction and leadership /business books. I recently read what are now favourite novels: Lessons In Chemistry; The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo and The Personal Librarian. I read them in rapid succession and am struggling to find other books that measure up to their standard. 

On the leadership side three books I recommend often to clients are: The Future Leader by Morgan; The CEO Next Door by Botelho and Powell; and Working Identity by Ibarra (for anyone in career transition mode).